Does he like me because I’m fun, smart… Or simply because I’m not white?
Grindr vowed to remove its controversial ethnicity filter last month, but they remain on other dating apps. That’s just one of the reasons dating as a woman of colour is a modern-day minefield, says Serena Smith (left)
when you meet someone new, it’s exciting to speculate on all the things you don’t know about them yet. What kind of music do they like? Do they prefer cooking at home or eating out? Do they take sugar in their tea?
But on top of this, I often wonder: do they actually like me, or are they fetishising and stereotyping me? Will their family treat me differently or disapprove of me because I’m not white? Will their friends make derogatory comments about my race behind closed doors?
Dating as a person of colour can be a minefield. It doesn’t help when dating apps feature ethnicity filters, which only make these acute feelings of being ‘different’ 10 times worse. These filters allow users to screen out profiles from certain ethnic backgrounds, normalising racial bias in the process. Thankfully, last month Grindr vowed to remove its filter from the next version of the app. However, both Okcupid and Hinge are retaining theirs.
Faye*, 21, lives in Leeds. She’s Iranian and Indian and has mixed feelings about ethnicity filters. ‘It depends on who’s actually using the filter and how they’re using it,’ she tells Grazia. ‘But if they let white people just look for other white people, it can encourage sexual racism.’
Research shows that sexual racism is alive and kicking on the modern dating scene. A recent study found that 80% of white users on a major dating app only messaged other white users, while only 3% of all messages from white users went to Black users. A Hinge spokesperson claimed that the filter is there ‘to support people of colour looking to find a partner with shared cultural experiences and background’ – but this ignores the fact that the filter also allows white people to exclude POC profiles from their dating pool.
‘What if it’s just my personal preference?’ people always say. But it’s necessary to ask yourself: am I actually unconsciously biased against people of colour? Eurocentric beauty standards have perpetuated the idea that thin, cis white women are the most desirable, so it’s worth questioning whether your ‘preference’ is actually prejudice – or indeed racism.
Professor Vini Lander, director of the Centre for Race, Education and Decoloniality at Leeds Beckett University, believes it’s easy for individuals to couch their racism in terms such as ‘personal preference’. ‘They appear to sound reasonable while still inflicting psychological and emotional trauma on a woman of colour,’ she says. ‘In other words, it is an act of racism.’
If women of colour aren’t screened out of the dating pool entirely, the struggle is far from over. Nayna*, a 24-year-old living in Manchester, has experienced being fetishised on dating apps due to her Pakistani heritage. ‘One guy once told me, “You’ve got this cute foreign vibe going on,”’ she says. ‘He went on to say that he was super into Latino girls, and then didn’t understand why I wasn’t thrilled about that comment. I’m Asian, not Latino.’
Like Nayna, I have also felt fetishised due to my skin colour. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called ‘exotic’. One individual had no qualms in informing me he’d ‘never been with a brown girl before’. It doesn’t matter that I remove myself from these situations – they are still painful reminders that people often see me as my skin colour first, and a human being second.
But as someone light-skinned, I benefit from colourism – that is, discrimination against those with darker skin tones – and my personal experiences cannot be equated to those of Black women.
Mia*, 23, lives and works in Manchester. She identifies as Black British. ‘I have had some interesting encounters in bars and clubs,’ she tells Grazia. ‘I was stood at a bar once where a guy was staring at me, then he literally just leant over and bit my arm. I don’t know if he thought because I was brown I might have different tasting skin or something. It is so much easier for my white friends to go on normal dates and take things to the next step. At times I’ve thought there’s something wrong with me.’
It can be hard to believe that any progress is being made when so many women have countless stories like these. But Professor Akwugo Emejulu, a sociologist at the University of Warwick, is hopeful. ‘We are currently living through a Black Is Beautiful revival,’ she says. ‘Black Lives Matter is a call for reflection and action on all the ways that Black people, and Black women in particular, are devalued and debased.’
But progress is slow and can often offer little reassurance for women who still have to experience racism. These encounters can leave us anxious, angry or upset, and it can be hard to know what to do. There’s no right or wrong way to react. ‘Some people are very good at calling folks out. Others need to immediately remove themselves from harm,’ Professor Emejulu says.
First and foremost, though, we need to start from a place of self-love. ‘Always understand that you’re not alone,’ reminds Professor Emejulu. Which, quite frankly, is good advice for anyone navigating the modern dating scene.
I’VE LOST COUNT OF THE TIMES I’VE BEEN CALLED ‘EXOTIC’